Becoming God’s People: Fear God, Not Pharaoh

Scripture: Exodus 1:8-22

If you grew up with the story of Exodus, or even encountered it later in the movies, you probably know it first of all as a story of liberation.  That’s certainly what comes to my mind first: the image of Moses plunging his staff into the Red Sea, dividing the waters for the Israelites to march through as the sound of the Egyptian army grows closer in the distance.  And in fact it’s been the inspiration for countless oppressed groups of people as they, with God’s help, write their own stories of liberation.  Martin Luther King Jr. liked to allude to Exodus a lot.

Exodus is also the story of something else.  It’s the story of a new relationship.  It’s the story of God and God’s people getting to know each other.

Back in Genesis, God made Godself known to one particular family.  God started with Abraham, who God promised would become a great nation, as numerous in the stars in the sky.  Then there was Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob.  But by the time we come to Jacob’s son, Joseph, we already get the sense that that personal connection is fading.  God is at work in the Joseph story, but largely behind the scenes.  And by the time we get to Exodus, it’s not clear how much of a relationship exists at all.  After all, when God enters the story a little later on, the people have lots of questions.

If Genesis is the story of God becoming the God of one particular family, Exodus is the story of God becoming the God of a people.

At the beginning of any new relationship, there’s a kind of awkward period of getting to know each other.  This is the case whether we’re talking a romantic relationship, a friendship, maybe even a professional relationship.  The beginning is full of questions.  Is it too soon to call?  Will they think this joke is funny, or am I going to sound super awkward?  Eventually the questions get a little deeper.  Will they still like me if they know my failings?  Are they only in it for the good times, or will they stick around when the going gets tough?  And on the flip side, is this someone I want in my life for the long haul?  These are the questions we find both God and the Israelites asking as they move through the sea and then the desert together – or at least, questions like them.

Exodus is a story of God and God’s people: testing the waters, learning what it means to be in relationship with each other.  God, for God’s part, needs to figure out if these are really the people God is going to achieve God’s mission in the world with.  And the Israelites, for their part, need to figure out what it means to be God’s people in the world.

And since that’s what we’re here for too, we’re going to spend the next seven or so weeks traveling with the Israelites on their journey – out of slavery, into the wilderness, to the base of Mt. Sinai and all the bumps and bruises along the way, as they figure it all out.

I don’t know about you, but I find the beginning of Exodus, the part we just heard, almost chilling in its timelessness.  Because, like all good stories of liberation, this is a story that begins in fear.

It is NOT the fear of an oppressed people for their oppressors.  Not at first: that comes later. It’s the other way around.  The story of Exodus begins with the Egyptian’s fear of the Israelites.

We’re told that in the generations since Joseph, the Israelites have been “fruitful,” “prolific,” and “strong.”  The land, it says, “was filled with them.”

Perhaps you can imagine how the Egyptians might have begun to feel about them, because they are a minority group gaining presence and power in someone else’s land, and we know how that goes, right?  They’re a drain on the system, the Egyptians might have said.  They’re taking our jobs.  We’re going to lose our culture, others might have said.  Still others: They’re all rapists and drug dealers.  Pharaoh makes it explicit: if we go to war, they will fight against us.

Sound familiar?

On some level it’s hard to say where the fear started: was it organic, swelling up from the bottom up?  Did ordinary people see this growing minority as a threat and demand some sort of action from their leader?  Or was the fear drummed up by Pharaoh, an intentional tactic to consolidate power?  Because nothing makes people fall in line like creating an enemy.

Some of you are probably nodding along right now, drawing some parallels, and of course I’ve alluded to them too.  The kind of fear this story begins with is the kind of fear that leads us to build walls, and set up camps, and carry guns, and call the police on people doing nothing more than existing in a public space.  It’s the fear, even, that makes us do little things like cross to the other side of the street when we see someone coming who looks a certain way. And you might be saying, yes, it’s terrible, how other people let themselves be manipulated by fearmongering politicians, it’s terrible how afraid ignorant people are of people who aren’t just like them.

But this isn’t a sermon about other people. And Pharaoh isn’t just one particular leader, but all the powers that hold sway over us.  This is about fear and the way that so often divides us from one another.

It may seem strange to go there on World Communion Sunday, which is a day to celebrate our diversity, united as the worldwide Body of Christ.  The thing is that while we can and should celebrate the beautiful things that make us different and connect us to each other, sometimes it’s easy to paper over the things we’d rather not talk about.  In the news this week, you may have heard or read about the conviction of Amber Guyger, the white police officer who walked into the wrong apartment, saw a black man eating ice cream on what she mistakenly thought was her sofa, and shot and killed him.  The man’s name was Botham Jean, and what made the news even more than Guyger’s conviction or her relatively light sentence of 10 years in prison was the scene of Botham Jean’s brother Brandt publicly forgiving Guyger and the two of them embracing.  In the day or so after this happened I saw lots of people sharing this image, calling it a powerful example of the radical forgiveness that Christ calls us to.  But then some other people said Yes, but.  When we make this a feel-good story of one individual forgiving another, it’s easy ignore the bigger issues at play, like a seeming epidemic of police violence against black people and the lack of accountability they seem to face.  And this, too, is a story about fear: the fear that made Guyger shoot in the first place, and the fear incidents like this create for those who worry they could be next.

We should celebrate diversity like we should celebrate forgiveness, but let’s not paper over the bigger issues; let’s not paper over the fear that surrounds us in the news and invades our own lives.

The next step is predictable: Pharoah moves from fear to action.  He must find a way to keep this dangerous minority in check.  Let’s put them to work, Pharaoh says.  After all, it’s hard to find the energy to rise up and fight Egypt with their enemies when you’re exhausted and your day to day survival is on the line.  And yet it seems that’s not enough to quell the people’s fears, or maybe Pharaoh needs to drum up some more fear in order to secure the support of his own people.  And so we move from forced labor to genocide: he summons the Hebrew midwives and instructs them to kill all the baby boys born to the Israelites.  Where he thinks his labor force is going to come from with all the Hebrew boys dead, I don’t know, but the things we do for political reasons don’t always make logical sense.

But here is where the story turns to hope.

Pharaoh and his people fear the Israelites.  And the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, have every reason to fear Pharaoh right back.  That’s what happens: fear begets fear.  Who knows what will happen if they don’t do exactly what Pharaoh says.  He is Pharaoh, after all.  And yet the story doesn’t tell us that they feared Pharaoh.  What does the story say?  That they feared God.

Not, of course, that they feared God in the exact same way they might have feared Pharoah, or in the way Pharaoh and the Egyptians feared the Israelites.  “Fear” in this sense doesn’t mean to be afraid of, not exactly.  More, it means that at the end of the day you know who you’re accountable to.  And at the end of the day Shiphrah and Puah knew they were accountable to God.  They might not have had known God well, at that point in the story.  But they knew God well enough for that.

Their conversation with Pharaoh is almost comedic.  This most powerful man in the ancient world, when he calls them to account for their disobedience, doesn’t issue an accusation.  He says “Why didn’t you do what I said?”  And they answer, “You see, Pharaoh, it’s not our fault.  The Hebrew women are so vigorous!  They give birth before we can even get there.”  Perhaps they’re playing on a stereotype that Pharaoh already holds.  We have stereotypes like this, sometimes, that certain groups of people are stronger or hardier or feel less pain than others.  They’re “positive,” stereotypes, sometimes, that let us deny our own racism when we believe and repeat them.  But here, Shiphrah and Puah are turning that around on Pharaoh.  And they get away with it.

Pharaoh is a powerful man.  But sometimes when you stand up to powerful people you discover they’re not ultimately so powerful after all.

And the thing is that when Shiphrah and Puah stand up to Pharaoh – when they refuse to fear him more than they fear God – they break the cycle of fear.

Now, I don’t mean that just all was well from there on out.  We’re still at the beginning of the story – and things will get worse before they get better.  When Pharaoh sees he can’t count on the midwives, he enlists all the Egyptian people to throw any Hebrew boys they see into the Nile.  He still says to let the girls live.  Presumably they can be dealt with some other way; they can eventually bear Egyptian babies for Egyptian men.

And yet this is the first action in the story that will open the door for something new.  Because when one person breaks the cycle of fear, it’s easier for the next person to do it too, and the next and the next.  The midwives’ “no” to Pharaoh opens the door for Moses, not thrown into the Nile but placed there in a basket to be rescued. And that opens the door for God to work miracles, to invite a downtrodden people to follow across a desert and a sea, to stand up and not be afraid anymore.

Sometimes I think our temptation, even when we see this fear at work around us in ways both overt and insidious, even when we know it is wrong, is to complain.  We rail about it on social media and we rail about it to our friends and we rail about it to our family – maybe we even preach about it.  And we think that’s enough to make us good people and put us on the right side of history, as long as we hold the right views.  And really what God is waiting for us to do is to stand up and break that cycle of fear.

It’s the same thing Jesus commands when he tells us to walk the extra mile when someone forces us to walk one, to turn the other cheek when someone hits us on one: not simply to bow to the command of someone more powerful than you, but to subvert their power by refusing to be afraid.

In the Exodus story, and in Jesus’ examples, it’s members of the oppressed or marginalized group who do this fear-breaking, but it doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t always be. Later in this first chapter of Exodus it is Pharaoh’s daughter herself who does the same thing from her place of privilege.  She’s the one who finds baby Moses in that basket in the Nile.  She rescues him even though her father has commanded his people to do the opposite.  Somehow, she must have refused to believe everything she’d hear about the Israelites – that they were lazy, dangerous, good for nothing.  Was she afraid, blatantly disobeying her father the king?  Did she, who didn’t know the God of the Israelites at all, fear God more than Pharaoh, too?

Do you?  Do we?

Maybe, in a way, that’s what we do as a church when we open our doors during the week, welcoming anyone who wants to come inside for a bite to eat and a place to sit and rest for a while.  Sure, we could listen to the neighbors who sometimes like to tell us we’re only attracting the wrong kind of people, but if we fear God, we know there is no wrong kind of people.

Maybe that’s what the Lutheran church (ELCA) did this summer when they declared themselves to be a “sanctuary denomination” – that in response to the fear drummed up in our country around immigrants, especially those from Central America, they call on their churches to respond to raids, fight mass detention, and offer radical hospitality to immigrants.  Hospitality is always a good antidote to fear.

Maybe that’s what we do when we’re bold enough to recognize the fear, the stereotypes, the prejudice we’ve internalized against people who are “other,” knowing that by God’s grace we can be not only forgiven, but changed.

The story begins in fear.  And before the story is over, there will be plenty more to fear, for both Israelites and Egyptians.  There will be locusts and hail and darkness, all signs of divine wrath.  There will be the invitation to walk through the middle of a churning sea.  There will be hunger and thirst and the fear of abandonment.

But – because a few people decided to fear God more than Pharaoh, because a few people decided to fear God instead of other people – the story also begins in hope and promise.

The Israelites are slaves.  But they won’t be for long.

They are God’s people, and they’re about to find out what that means.

 

 

 

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